Biomass Incinerator Looms on Horizon for Gypsum, Colorado

An 11.5 megawatt biomass power incinerator proposal for the 6,400 person central-Colorado town of Gypsum is moving along swiftly, despite concerns of community members and at least one town councilor.

Utah-based Eagle Valley Clean Energy LLC’s facility would burn 70,000 bone-dry tons per year of wood chips from whole trees—living and beetle-killed—tree branches and limbs, and “urban wood waste from a local landfill,” requiring 1,200 acres of forest per year sourced within a fifty to seventy-five mile radius. Gypsum is surrounded by the White River National Forest [pictured below]. 


The biomass facility is scheduled to go online by the end of 2013 and would sell ten megawatts to Holy Cross Energy, which provides power for the ski resort towns of Vail, Aspen and Glenwood Springs.  

One Gypsum resident—who would only speak under condition of anonymity—said his primary worries are “the immediate threats to the health of our school children, in addition to the future growth and development of our town.” Referring to “substantial scientific evidence demonstrating the harmful pulmonary effects” of air pollution from biomass facilities, the resident is particularly averse to the siting of the incinerator “within a few hundred yards of three local schools, two playgrounds, the rec[reation] center and rec[reation] fields.” 

Natalia Swalnick, Director of Environmental Health for the American Lung Association in Colorado wrote in a June 29, 2012 letter that “the modeling paperwork submitted to the [Colorado] Department of Public Health and Environment indicates that this plant not only will be adding particulate pollution, but it will be reaching and exceeding the level many national health groups consider unsafe.”

Gypsum Town Councilor Tom Edwards believes siting the biomass plant on the Eagle River at the entrance to town goes against the town’s 2008 Eagle River Area Plan, an $85,000 document seeking to guide development along the river. According to Edwards, the plan had instead recommended that the area that is now the proposed incinerator site be zoned for residential and commercial, rather than industrial development. In March, Edwards was the sole dissenting vote against the Town of Gypsum annexing the proposed site from Eagle County, which passed 6-1.

“My feeling is, to some extent, we threw out the master plan to approve this,” said Edwards via an August 22 phone interview.

Edwards’ main concern is the “image of the town, how many people come and live here,” and more specifically, whether Gypsum becomes known as “an industrial town.” Edwards, who was recently re-elected to his seat after his vote and public stance against the annexation, says he’s since had “at least a dozen people come to me and thank me for my stance.”

When questioned, Edwards admitted to some concerns with public health from the facility, but added that they were “a minor thing.” While he’d yet to delve into the science around greenhouse gas emissions from biomass power plants, he did question “using a huge amount of fuel to harvest, chip and haul lumber to the plant.” Referring to the twelve full-time jobs being offered to Gypsum residents by the power plant—out of a total of forty-two—he said he was “not willing to turn the town around for twelve people.”

Edwards claims that not all of the other councilors are pleased with the biomass facility either. He believes that they feel construction is inevitable and that the best way to have a say in the process was to have annexed the site from the county. Other issues of note to the council include the incinerator’s water use, the disposal of the wastewater in either the Eagle River or the town sewage plant, truck traffic, and the spread of debris.

Dean Rostrom, spokesperson for Eagle Valley Clean Energy says that “the plant will be a long-term, unique and reliable outlet for hazardous fuel reduction with strong support from federal, state and private forest managers.”  Buck Sanchez, deputy forest supervisor for the White River National Forest, said the publicly-owned forest would partially fuel the facility through logging for wildfire fuels reduction. 

U.S. Forest Service scientists insist the single most effective action people can take to protect homes and lives from wildfire is not backcountry logging, but taking “firewise” precautions immediately around homes. Jack Cohen, research scientist at the Fire Sciences Laboratory in the Forest Service's Rocky Mountain Research Station states that “home ignitability, rather than wildland fuels, is the principal cause of home losses during wildland/urban interface fires. Key items are flammable roofing materials and the presence of burnable vegetation immediately adjacent to homes. Intense flame fronts (or crown fires) will not ignite wooden walls at distances greater than 40 meters or 130 feet.”

Following a request from community members, a website on some of the concerns with Gypsum’s biomass facility has been set up by Energy Justice Network, a national organization based in Washington, D.C. assisting grassroots communities concerned about dirty energy facilities.